Battering-ram six-string power and inescapable melody have long been the tools of Bob Mould's trade. Through the hostile punk punches of his HYsker DY days in the Eighties and the sublime soaring of his pop-leaning early-Nineties excursion with Sugar, Mould crafted a body of work that elevates the bone-pounding possibilities of sheer electrified sonic force while maintaining the very traditional artistic elements of rock and roll songwriting. His noisy hooks have both inspired and instructed so-called alternative icons like Kurt Cobain and Billy Corgan. More recently his fierce solo live performances even stirred the sleeping showman in a rock royal like Pete Townshend, leading him to take on the occasional solo acoustic performance, many of them benefits.
So why does Bob Mould want to hang up his electric guitar -- forever?
"I'll be real honest," the 37-year-old musician confesses. "Given my history in this business, I can't see a way to age gracefully, continuing to do what I call 'punk rock.' Given the high quality of what I've been doing, I've sort of set a standard for myself with my audience that will eventually be hard to live up to. Just the physical nature of the shows, the volume, the activity, the aggression. I don't feel all those things as strongly as I did fifteen years ago. I don't want to make a fool of myself, and I don't want to drag my audience to a place they don't need to go."
With the release of his fourth solo record, The Last Dog and Pony Show, Mould decided that his current four-month tour "will be the final time around with an electric band. Then I'll figure out other ways of performing live." This from a man whose ear-splitting, rib-rattling live shows were a talisman for his dedicated fans.
"A lot of career decisions I make are based on things I like and dislike as a music fan," Mould explains. "A real simple part of this is when I go out to see a night of punk rock, I can only stand up for about three hours. Then my back is killing me. I know how old my fans are, generally, and after three hours of standing on concrete, what do I want to do? Get the hell home and sit down," he laughs. "So I'm sort of following my own restrictions as well."
In addition to the legitimate fear of embarrassing himself as age takes a toll on his performing abilities, the guitarist has a distinct purpose for this final outing: "Over the past handful of years I've done acoustic shows, and they're more intimate. The thing I always hear after shows is 'I really wish I'd seen HYsker DY, I really wish I'd seen Sugar, blah-blah-blah-blah-blah, I've never seen you with a band.' I know this is the last time around for me, so at the risk of being presumptuous, I just thought it would be best to announce to people that this is it. Here's your chance."
Such a declaration forces his hand. "There's part of that, too," he admits. "I knew when I made up my mind to lay down the law that it was as much for myself. I ingrained it."
Since the 1995 demise of Sugar, his last real band, Mould has been all about change. He moved from Austin to New York (the "roots just didn't take hold" he says of the Texas music capital), spent time working out some personal issues via therapy and songwriting (often one and the same for him), and limited his live performances severely, not only in number but in sound. He chose to play only solo acoustic sets -- just his voice and his ringing twelve-string. His 1997 solo release (an untitled affair later unofficially dubbed Hubcap by Mould himself) was a fairly dark documentation of the personal transitions he was going through. A "purge record," as Mould terms it. While there were certainly poignant and majestic moments on the disc ("Fort Knox, King Solomon," the telling "Deep Karma Canyon"), it was extremely claustrophobic in sound and often impenetrable in lyric. Unlike 1990's more accessible Black Sheets of Rain (there's a cheery title for you), Hubcap was insular, grudging, and light on hooks.
The more inviting Dog and Pony Show is a less strictly personal work, with Mould turning his attention outward and avoiding the self-pity that marred his previous disc. In fact, this new one is the hill beyond "Deep Karma Canyon."
"There's an obvious pattern," says Mould. "Workbook up, Black Sheets down, Copper Blue up, Beaster down, File Under: Easy Listening up, Hubcap down. I see it now, but I don't know it when I'm writing. It's the oscillations of life. Knock on wood, my oscillations stay years apart. The thing I remind myself every day is that I'm so lucky to have a long-enough career to see that. Especially in this day and age.
"The last two records are so indicative of what kind of impact geographical placement has on me," he continues. "I think with any writer worth their salt, your environment is paramount to what you're doing."
New York is evidently Mould's perfect habitat. "There are seasons here," he says. "As I get older, I become much more sensitive to the simplicity of things, the fact that in October I've got to dig out the sweaters and in January it's gonna snow. I can't wait for winter now. In Austin, winter was 70 degrees in the daytime, then it's five months of 100 degrees. I'm a snowbird. I was born in snowbird land. I spent 32 years of my life in the northeast or in Minneapolis. After not seeing snow for a number of years, you start to freak out. And if you're a writer -- and I believe the notion that because I write, my gift is that I can string together the commonplace and make something interesting of it -- those very commonplace things are so important. And I just didn't know. Now that I'm older, I'm aware of it and it's so fucking simple. Duh! Why was I looking for all these other reasons and excuses and justifications? It was as simple as rain."
Thoughts on change and the energy of New York City crackle throughout Dog and Pony Show. The taut "New #1" espouses the balm of new love for a broken heart; "Moving Trucks" rocks its way through a man's self-acceptance after having been left by a lover ("Today I am starting the rest of my life/No moving trucks to hold me down"); and the jaunty "Vaporub" struggles with the difficulty of communicating from the heart ("Never learned to trust another person/Never knew a person who could understand my words").
Though much of the album is steeped in Mould's life and experience, a few cuts reach outside to pure storytelling. The irrepressibly catchy "Classifieds" is a funny story (yes, he does have a sense of humor) about a person who gets caught up in reading the personal ads ("What am I looking for?/Number 340's in here again"), decides to try one himself, and ends up sneaking out after a miserable one-night stand ("Now you know the reason why that one's in there every time"). And the thick, guitar-heavy "Skintrade" chronicles a young man's unfortunate descent into addiction and porn notoriety. It's a very dark tale with a very specific nod.
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Mould explains, "It's almost a tribute to one of my mentors, William Burroughs. Not by association but just by being there. Naked Lunch changed my life when I was seventeen and read that book in one sitting. It made my head spin. It simultaneously answered a lot of questions I had that nobody could answer for me because I didn't know how to verbalize the questions, and it opened up this whole other world of 'What the fuck?' I was fortunate enough to get to know William and spend some time listening to him, just observing and learning. When he passed on, it hit me, and I was grateful for that time I spent with him. So ['Skintrade'] is sort of a tip of the hat."
Mould says that some writers have tried to link "Classifieds" and "Skintrade" into some perverse theory about meaningless sex. "It's people who haven't been writing very long who are like, 'Oh, Bob's queer, so we'll try to tie these two pieces of thread together and make a knot.' And I'm like, 'What?! Wait a minute.' [But] I can't dwell on that. When Naked Lunch floored me, I didn't immediately look at the picture of Burroughs on the back of the book and think, 'This guy did all that?'"
For Mould, music is a career, sometimes separate from the rest of his life. His concentration now is on the craft of songwriting and expressing universal concerns like love and trust and loss, "the issues that as we get older we are all a lot more aware of." Even the apparent limitations of the rock format don't bother him. "I don't think there's anything wrong with condensing a pretty broad emotion into something short. That's the art form I've chosen. I'm not writing operas, I'm weaving a good story, getting in and getting out in four minutes. Given today's short attention spans, four minutes is about it.
"But this is what I want to do," he adds. "I want to focus on my writing. I want to focus on my recording. This is why I don't want to spend four months solid on the road. How to make those stories stronger and better is important to me. It's more important than spending seven hours a day in a rental car. It's time to shift gears. I don't know what the next one is -- and that's the cool thing. I don't even want to think about it until I get off the train.